When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Green Or Gone

The Plastisphere: Ocean Pollution May Trigger Next Pandemic

Plastic pollution has contaminated our oceans to the point where a new ecological niche of anthropic origin has been coined: the 'plastisphere'. The bacteria that proliferate there could lead to the next health crisis.

Every year, no less than 10 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into oceans
Every year, no less than 10 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into oceans
Yann Verdo

Study after study, and each more damning than the last.

A study from December 2019 in "Scientific Reports' described how a region of the world as remote as Easter Island (Rapa Nui) could have its coasts littered with plastic debris: marine currents connect it to an intensive fishing zone off the coast of Peru and the densely populated coastal areas of the South American continent.

A month earlier, scientists on the sailing vessel "Tara" returned from a six-month mission around the four European seafronts where they collected samples from Europe's nine main rivers (Thames, Elbe, Rhine, Seine, Ebre, Rhone, Tiber, Garonne, Loire) and revealed that all were polluted with microplastics, that is plastic debris smaller than 5 millimeters, usually coming from the fragmentation of macro-waste like plastic bags, bottles, fishing nets, synthetic fabrics, etc.

But the rivers that feed the oceans are not the only source of plastic pollution. Both on land and sea, plastic waste is now so widespread that some researchers have even proposed to label it as a characteristic of the "Anthropocene," the earth's current geological era whereby human activities make a significant impact on the Earth's ecosystem.

The plastic continent

During a meeting on "Polymers and Oceans', the French physico-chemist Pascale Fabre explained how the pervasive effect of plastic pollution can be understood by its low manufacturing costs and durability, thus the reason for its exponential growth in production and ability to survive for decades.

Every year, no less than 10 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into oceans, where currents lead them into the ocean gyres. A good/ terrifying example of this is the vortex of waste in the North Pacific, dubbed the "8th continent" and the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," which was discovered in 2013, contains 80,000 tonnes of plastic and spans 1.6 million square kilometers, which makes it roughly an area three times the size of France, or twice the size of Texas. And, for as shocking as it might sound, this floating plastic continent is more like an iceberg, with most of the dense mass hidden deep below the surface area.

In the Mediterranean Sea alone — which already suffers from poor waste management - 200 tons of plastic are washed ashore each year.

"On the Mediterranean seabed, the density of plastic waste can reach up to 1 million pieces of debris per square kilometer," revealed François Galgani, oceanographer and ecotoxicologist at the Ifremer Centre in Corsica.

Sponges of pollution

Take a minute to think of all those distressing images of marine animals being strangled or injured by macroplastics. The problem posed by the microplastics — the ones that we can't exactly see — is even more serious.

Ingested by every organism in the food chain, microplastics lead to a cascade of detrimental effects.

Present in water everywhere, these microplastics are ingested by every organism in the food chain, from zooplankton to the largest of whales, reducing their ability to digest food and absorb nutrients, thus altering their intestinal microbiota (dysbiosis), slowing their metabolism. It's a cascade of detrimental effects made all the more significant by the proven chemical toxicity of these tiny plastic fragments.

When it comes to marine plastics, toxicity doubles, CNRS (The French National Centre for Scientific Research) ecotoxicologist Ika Paul-Pont explains.

"On one hand, it's because plastics are hydrophobic, so they act like "sponges of pollution" that absorb and concentrate contaminants present in seawater - hydrocarbons, pesticides, and metal. This debris is highly concentrated, with levels of toxicity up to a million times higher than in the surrounding water. Plus, plastic itself is toxic 95% polymer (polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, etc.) with 5% additives (colorants, flame retardants, etc.), editor's note. This 5% of additives is made with such a wide variety of chemicals that they are not identified, but undoubtedly they contain endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates and bisphenol-A."

However, the most worrying aspect of plastic pollution is the "plastisphere," which refers to all the micro and macro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae, invertebrates, crustaceans) that colonize plastic waste and form what specialists are calling a "biofilm" around their surface. Known since 2013, it has developed into a serious topic of concern for the scientific community.

In 2016, two Dutch biologists discovered bacteria of the genus Vibrio, a family that includes the bacterium responsible for cholera in the plastisphere. Three years later, an alarming new discovery topped the previous one: while studying bacteria found on plastic waste off the coast of Antarctica, scientists found that these bacteria were as antibiotic-resistant as the toughest bacteria present in urban environments. Certainly, if these microplastics have the capacity to absorb surrounding contaminants, they can just as easily absorb antibiotics.

Non biodegradable plastic debris allow them to migrate further.

The big problem with the plastisphere is that the plastic debris that supports it is just the medium of choice.

"Plastics remain in the environment much longer than biodegradable materials such as driftwood, so they are able to migrate much further over much longer time periods," explains Paul-Pont.

In 2017, just six years after a tsunami ravaged the coasts of Japan and caused the accident in Fukushima, American scientists found 289 species of invertebrates on the west coast of the United States that had never been found there before and had originated in Japanese waters. These little creatures had crossed the Pacific on the plastic debris set in motion by the tsunami. The fear with such artificially transplanted foreign species from one ecosystem to another is that they tend to be invasive.

They also bring the possibility of dangerous pathogens, whether Vibrio bacteria or something new. Coupled with the threat of antibiotic resistance, it becomes obvious that we must urgently tackle this problem.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

Jehovah's Witnesses Translate The Bible In Indigenous Language — Is This Colonialism?

The Jehovah's Witnesses in Chile have launched a Bible version translated into the native Mapudungun language, evidently indifferent to the concerns of a nation striving to save its identity from the Western cultural juggernaut.

A Mapuche family awaits for Chilean President Gabriel Boric to arrive at the traditional Te Deum in the Cathedral of Santiago, on Chile's Independence Day.

Claudia Andrade

NEUQUÉN — The Bible can now be read in Mapuzugun, the language of the Mapuche, an ancestral nation living across Chile and Argentina. It took the Chilean branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses, a latter-day Protestant church often associated with door-to-door proselytizing and cold calling, three years to translate it into "21st-century Mapuzugun".

The church's Mapuche members in Chile welcomed the book when it was launched in Santiago last June, but some of their brethren see it rather as a cultural imposition. The Mapuche were historically a fighting nation, and fiercely resisted both the Spanish conquerors and subsequent waves of European settlers. They are still fighting for land rights in Chile.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ